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Embedding Equity in Philanthropy by Supporting Leaders of Color

Guest post by the Catalogue for Philanthropy

Earlier this year, the Catalogue for Philanthropy concluded our inaugural BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Executive Director cohort, in which local nonprofit leaders of color met regularly for six months to connect with and support each other as peers. Using a participant-led model, the cohort determined the agendas for the sessions and the Catalogue helped facilitate, with leaders discussing topics ranging from managing staff onboarding and professional development to recruiting and engaging board members.

This was the Catalogue’s second cohort convening nonprofit leaders who identify as BIPOC. Late last year, we also concluded our pilot BIPOC Emerging Leader Cohort, which mixed peer-to-peer learning with skill-building so that aspiring and junior Executive Directors could grow professionally alongside each other. Over four months, these emerging leaders of color shared and gained insights about fundraising models and strategies, establishing equity-centered evaluation metrics, and more.

Across both cohorts, common challenges emerged, as well as potential initiatives that would support BIPOC-led small nonprofits. In reflecting on the concerns and ideas our cohort participants shared, five main takeaways that our sector should consider rose to the top when looking to support and champion leaders of color.


1. Move towards a vision of trust-based philanthropy.

Too often, institutional funders demand that nonprofits earn their trust before receiving their funding. Our participants recognize that trust is a two-way street. In most instances, philanthropic institutions and small nonprofits are deeply aligned on a common goal of making local impact. One big way to increase this impact is for funders to trust when nonprofits say they are doing the work.

On a small scale, this can look like rethinking how nonprofits apply for grants and how those applications are scored. What questions are you asking and why? Which of these questions are truly important to you? If it doesn’t serve a purpose, consider removing it from your application process. When reviewing applications, are you looking for spelling errors or are you prioritizing how a nonprofit is engaging their community? If you critique an application for being “unpolished,” can you acknowledge that small nonprofits may not have the capacity to tell their stories the way larger nonprofits might and examine how you define a “polished” application?

In the longer-term, we have heard from leaders of color that it is difficult to plan for their organizations – especially around structural changes or the ongoing process of embedding equity in their work – when they can only secure funding for the next 12 months. Instead of restricting your funding by program area or length of time, could you give multi-year grants for general operating support so that leaders have the freedom and flexibility to determine how to best allocate that money? For individual donors, consider making a multi-year pledge.

2. Prioritize the health, well-being, and sustainability of leaders of color.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout has been a major issue in the nonprofit sector, particularly for leaders of color. Small BIPOC-led nonprofits already grapple with the many systemic inequities that disproportionately impact communities of color in our society. On top of this, they tend to receive less funding and attention than white-led nonprofits. Plugging these gaps has led many leaders of color, themselves experiencing burnout while managing exhausted nonprofit staff, to work in ways that are unsustainable.

Collectively, we must better care for leaders of color by providing funding for coaching and mental health services, and by offering support through leadership development and skill-building that is affordable. Such a network of care is what will enable BIPOC and women-identified leaders to build sustainable workflows for themselves and their staff.

3. Create space for authenticity and honesty in our funder-nonprofit relationships.

Relationships that allow for both parties to be fully honest and themselves breed trust. Because of the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits, many leaders often feel that they cannot be authentic with a funder without worrying that they will withdraw their support. Such an imbalanced dynamic, wherein nonprofit leaders refrain from sharing about stressors or challenges and funders don’t see the full picture of what’s happening on the ground, only weakens the collaborative nature of these relationships.

True collaboration is crucial to ensure that everyone in our sector can direct their full attention, time, and talent to working with each other. Funders can take small steps to create more room for authenticity in their relationships with nonprofit leaders of color, such as by proactively encouraging leaders to share the realities and difficulties of their work, and, most importantly, by continuing to support nonprofits that face challenges or setbacks but are still focused on critical local work.

4. Make networks of support more visible and accessible.

From DAFs to major donors to corporate funders to foundations without open RFPs, finding and navigating sources of funding can be extremely challenging for nonprofits that aren’t already privy to such networks of support. Bigger organizations and white-led nonprofits often have more access to these funding sources than smaller and BIPOC-led organizations.

One major way that the philanthropic sector can increase equity is by making these networks more visible and accessible so that leaders of color know where to look and how to secure support from funders who want to champion local, grassroots movement work.

5. Transition from donors to actively engaged supporters.

Individual donors and nonprofit leaders both agree that supporting a nonprofit should not feel like a transactional relationship. While financial support is critical, we hear from leaders of color that they want donors to show up for the cause in more ways, too. This can look like offering your time by volunteering or offering your influence by becoming a peer-to-peer fundraiser and sharing about the nonprofit’s work with your friends.

Ultimately, supporters and nonprofits exist within a larger ecosystem of change. Just as nonprofit leaders work hard to cultivate a more authentic relationship with their donors, donors can take action to become more engaged supporters and move into authentic advocacy as well.

The Catalogue for Philanthropy is a partner of the Crimsonbridge Foundation’s LeaderBridge initiative. Visit the Catalogue website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and by email to stay updated on upcoming professional development offerings. To learn more about LeaderBridge, visit


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